Why it is time for the US to end its strategic ambiguity

Khaled Abou Zahr

Friction points between the US and China are increasing. The most alarming is that warships from the two countries were involved in a near-collision in the South China Sea on Saturday. Moreover, there are signals indicating a transformation in the dynamics of international foreign policy, with the spheres of influence of both countries being reshaped. However, all this should not be solely framed as part of the great power competition. Another important factor within this new dynamic is the rise of regional powers.
From Asia to the Middle East and even in South America, we are noticing a new positioning of countries and attempts to solve regional problems and advance their national objectives swiftly. Many analysts are now framing this great power competition as a new cold war, but the rise of regional powers is not similar to the nonalignment movement of the Cold War era. Also, the dynamics between the US and China are not the same as with the Soviet bloc. First, there is no ideological confrontation that is apparent at this stage. Second, the US and China have ongoing trade relations and still have positive diplomatic relations – even if they are deteriorating.
And so, as the West debates decoupling or de-risking with China, this situation is supporting regional powers as they push forward with their own plans and take responsibility for their future. We are noticing that countries come up with a solution to a conflict and then solicit the support of international powers to bring it forward. Moreover, most countries, including Israel, have been balancing their interests between the two superpowers. As long as the US and China stay in this gray zone, this will continue. This change is apparent within the bloc of Western friends. Many of them question the future of the US’ guardianship of global stability. This is particularly important in regions or countries where the US is no longer the leading trade partner, specifically where it has lost this spot to China. How will the world navigate this new dynamic? This has also led to an increase in criticisms of the US, especially from African heads of state.
When the headlines warn of an end to the dollar as the world’s reserve currency of choice, when the BRICS group becomes a larger economic bloc than the G7 and other signs, it becomes a valid question. Moreover, will we witness the birth of a new system or will the current institutions be transformed to accommodate this change? As the criticisms increase, we should ask ourselves what is the state of the world today? Since the Second World War, extreme poverty has been steadily declining worldwide. Child mortality rates have dramatically decreased. Life expectancy has increased globally. Education has improved. Violence – including armed conflicts, war and homicides – has declined over time. This is still true despite the war in Ukraine. This progress was mostly made, whether people want to admit it or not, thanks to the global role of the US. And so, could this also come to an end if the US loses ground internationally?
It is symbolic that these structural changes are happening as Henry Kissinger celebrates his 100th birthday. Indeed, one of Kissinger’s best-known concepts is “strategic ambiguity.” In short, this is the use of deliberate ambiguity or uncertainty in the actions and intentions of a superpower, which can serve as a tool for maintaining stability and preventing adversaries from accurately predicting their next move. This concept acknowledges unpredictability as a privilege of superpowers, which can confuse foes and friends alike. But today, the US has become precise in its ambiguity and predictable in its unpredictability. And so it needs a new approach. This is why the US needs to reengage with its partners and flip the existing modus operandi. In short, it should support and back these regional powers to become more independent in deciding their own fate. It should also avoid basing this international approach with a greater agenda for humanity. It should, in fact, only help these countries achieve what the US promises its own citizens in the pursuit of happiness. It is a strong enough message. The empowerment of regional powers to carve their own future is the best way to build strong and long-lasting partnerships in this new era. I would say that, to a certain extent, we are seeing this nascent new formula emerge between the US and India. Although my bet is that India will also one day become a major power, maybe even surpassing China.
One cannot deny that, even if the international order and decision-making mechanisms that regulate global affairs have maintained greater stability, they are not reflective of this changing world. And so, will these institutions change to accommodate the new status of China and the rise of regional powers or will we witness a second system? When looking at the world map today, we can imagine a worst-case scenario where the world is once again divided in half, with a frontier at the border between Ukraine and Russia. This is why it is important for the US to reengage with its partnership network in a straightforward manner and to abandon its strategic ambiguity with them. Regional powers in the Middle East and elsewhere have evolved, matured and taken on greater responsibility for their fate. The US should support this transformation and build the new alliances that will keep the world safe for another 100 years.